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May 19, 2015 2:41 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Concerned Citizens Group Sees Limited Success Three Years After Its Formation

Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays member Simone Scotto. KYLE CAMPBELL
May 21, 2015 7:05 PM

Between the filing of Freedom of Information requests, the staking out of suspect properties, the surveillance of people, and the creation and updating of a thorough database that lists rental properties in their hamlet, members of the Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays have been busy over the past few years.

As the group, better known by its acronym, CCHB, marks its third anniversary this month, it does so with a long list of properties that, it contends, continue to violate the Southampton Town code, and a short list of success stories in dealing with the main issue that prompted the group’s establishment: the number of illegal rentals in Hampton Bays.

Despite the group’s obsessive record-collecting, the number of houses that they think are continuing to violate the town code has remained consistently more than 450. It turns out that this perceived lack of success is due, in large part, to a disagreement between the town and the CCHB as to what constitutes an actual violation.

“There’s a disconnect between what we see and what they see,” said Mike Dunn, the president of the group. “Dialogue is going to have to be opened back up, because there are houses that are considered owner-occupied houses with two or three families living in them.”

Hard At Work

For each of the past three years, the CCHB has submitted a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law seeking information about how many students attending the Hampton Bays School District are living in rental homes or apartments. The district responds by sending a list of all the rental properties, as well as how many students live in them, without identifying the students by name.

Roughly 55 percent of the student body, or 1,215 students, live in rentals, according to figures released by the school district last fall.

This year’s response, however, showed that district students were living in 608 rental properties as of this past September. Mr. Dunn contends that almost 550 of those rentals are illegal, some because they lack the proper permits, while others are violating another statute of the town code. Some families are also using motels as permanent residences, while others have set up makeshift housing in sheds and shacks on otherwise vacant land.

Mr. Dunn and the CCHB board maintain that illegal housing is the source of most of their hamlet’s ails. They argue that the over-occupancy of houses, and the illegal use of motels as permanent housing, are overburdening schools and dragging down property values. Their goal is to get the town to crack down on illegal housing in their hometown.

Though group members hang their argument on hard data and economics, the issue of illegal housing in Hampton Bays is tied unequivocally to immigration, with newcomers from Mexico, Central America and South America occupying many of the illegal rentals. This reality has caused some to question whether the CCHB’s motivations are racially motivated—an issue of particular concern in a hamlet that has seen recruitment fliers from the Ku Klux Klan pop up on several occasions during the past year.

In addition to gathering information from the school district in order to cross-reference it with town figures, CCHB members took their investigation further, driving by rental houses and even following cars transporting children back to homes outside the district after classes.

“Many times, we’ve gone on [stakeouts], we’ve followed buses, we followed these cars—they’ve taken us to Tuckahoe, they’ve taken us to Southampton, they’ve taken us to Flanders,” said Simone Scotto, a member of the CCHB’s board, during the group’s most recent meeting last month. “I can’t explain to you how much stuff we’ve done. At night, we go out and look at houses, how many cars are there. We’ve done so much, but there’s only so much we can do.”

The Hampton Bays School District has a policy of conducting residency checks for new students, sending an employee door to door to “welcome” new families, while also ensuring that they live where they say they live. Schools Superintendent Lars Clemensen has said repeatedly that his district is not concerned with the legality of the students’ homes, but rather simply that they sleep under a roof in Hampton Bays each night.

A Persistent Issue

Mr. Dunn, who owns a construction company in Hampton Bays and has spent the past several weeks campaigning for the Hampton Bays School Board, said the number of illegal rentals in the school district has increased since his group started monitoring them. Not including motels and other lodging facilities, the district had 457 rental properties without active rental permits in 2012, according to records kept by the CCHB. That number increased to 488 in 2013 before jumping to 548 in 2014.

A copy of this past year’s full list—which included motels and temporary lodging, for a total of 658 properties—was provided to Southampton Town Code Enforcement and the town attorney’s office last fall. Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato said her records show that 337 of the properties actually had valid rental permits or were owner-occupied houses, while 206 lacked rental permits, and their owners were issued appearance tickets. Meanwhile, 48 of the properties were either pending a rental affidavit from the tenant, or the owner could not be contacted by the town.

Additionally, 67 were either legal apartments, commercial properties or vacant dwellings, and eight of them were not valid addresses, according to Ms. Scarlato.

“As of now, 90 to 95 percent are in compliance with town code. Some had expired rental permits, some are vacant, some are owner-occupied,” Ms. Scarlato said. “I don’t know what kind of data they get or how they get it, but the numbers they’re claiming are not accurate. I believe the violations have all been addressed.”

Mr. Dunn does not trust that assessment, however. He insists that, based on what he and others have observed with their own eyes, it is impossible that 90 percent of the rental homes in the community are now in compliance.

“When we see the amount of cars on front lawns and the amount of families coming out of these houses every day, it’s clear that [the homes] are not being used by single families as they were intended,” he said.

Among the main points of contention between the town attorney’s office and the CCHB are the limitations of an owner-occupied property. According to town law, as long as someone is living in their home, they are permitted to rent out two rooms without obtaining a rental permit.

Robert Liner, a real estate attorney and vice president of the CCHB, argues that in many cases, these individual rooms are being rented out to entire families and not individuals—an action that violates the law.

Ms. Scarlato said the town cannot dictate exactly how many people can stay in a room; she said that varies from house to house and is determined by state housing regulations. She also noted that it is sometimes difficult to determine who in a house is related to whom, especially when the occupants are undocumented.

“Occupancy regulations are very high, so we trynotto dealwiththe number of people in abedroom,” she said. “It is not as strict as some people would like it to be.”

The Motel Factor

The CCHB and town are also at odds over the limitations of motels within the Hampton Bays School District. “A motel is a motel” has become a popular mantra for the CCHB, which argues that such structures should not be used for permanent housing, because they are, by definition, meant for transient use.

But because of a decades-old legal loophole, motel owners have been able to house residents on a long-term basis without repercussions in some instances. Between 1957 and 1972, when motels were issued certificates of occupancy, the town did not include a transiency restriction—an oversight that allows renters to stay indefinitely. Both prior to and after those dates, the owners of motels could not rent out their rooms indefinitely.

Motels have remained at the heart of the CCHB’s efforts to rid the town of illegal rentals. With the limited number of actual apartment complexes in Hampton Bays, many motels have been illegally converted to apartments to fill the growing demand for affordable rentals.

The group spent nearly two years, from 2011 until 2013, urging the town to shut down a Suffolk County-operated homeless shelter that was being run out of the Hidden Cove Motel on West Tiana Road. The county eventually closed the shelter and, last year, the town purchased that motel using its Community Preservation Fund and plans to raze the structure to make way for a wetland restoration project.

The CCHB also spent $34,000 in lawyers’ fees to block the conversion of another motel, Tiana Pines on Montauk Highway, into a garden apartment complex last year, Mr. Liner said.

Currently, the group is targeting another motel on Shinnecock Road called the Bel-Aire Cove, threatening to take matters into their own hands if the town does not address the issue in a timely fashion, which Mr. Liner said has often been the case.

“The failure of the town to enforce the code, which exists on the books, is that the town is completely turning a blind eye on Hampton Bays, is afraid to attack the issue for whatever reason they may have,” Mr. Liner said. “All of this contributes to the decline of Hampton Bays as a tourist destination for the summer, stresses the tax dollars of Hampton Bays and I simply ask the elected officials to do what they were elected to do and not what they want to do.”

‘Unintended Consequences’

Sister Mary Beth Moore, who runs Centro Corazón de Maria, a nonprofit that operates out of St. Rosalie’s Roman Catholic Church in Hampton Bays and assists Latino immigrants, said she knows at least 20 families who live in motels that have been converted into apartments in the hamlet. She said closing down all the motels would displace as many as 300 people, therefore creating a new issue rather than solving an existing one.

According to U.S. Census projections from 2013, roughly 2,594 Hampton Bays residents were born in another country, accounting for about 20 percent of the hamlet’s total population.

While she understands that they have good intentions, Sister Moore also thinks that members of the CCHB lack the necessary contextual knowledge of the local Latino community to understand how a complete crackdown would impact immigrants.

“Persons who are not familiar with, who haven’t had the opportunity to know, the Latino community simply do not understand the Latino community on the East End,” she said. “They act with a blindness and a lack of awareness of the unintended consequences for their actions on the Latino community.

“People can be utterly sincere and upright and blind,” she continued. “We know that those three things can coexist.”

Sister Moore described the notion of simply eliminating all illegal housing in the hamlet and thinking it will act as a panacea for Hampton Bays as “an utter oversimplification.”

Others in the community have gone as far as to describe the actions of the CCHB as overtly racist, pointing out that most of the illegal rentals are occupied by Latinos. Mr. Liner charges that such people are utilizing “buzz words” to undermine his group’s cause, which is to get the landlords and absentee landlords into compliance.

“The residents are the parties that are being used as a pawn by the landlords and possibly the politicians,” Mr. Liner said. “They are capitalizing on their lack of knowledge and intimidating them into living in substandard conditions. The code violations exist not because of the residents but the landlords.”

Mr. Liner’s wife, Gail, who also is heavily involved in the CCHB, addressed the issue of racism during the group’s most recent meeting. Specifically, she discussed “racism as an excuse not to move forward” with code enforcement at the town level.

“It’s something nobody wants to address—it’s out there but that’s not what this is about,” Ms. Liner said. “This is about the landlords that are taking advantage, exploiting the towns, the people that live here and that’s all it’s about.”

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Hampton Bays is next to one of the wealthiest towns in the country, and refuses to capitalize on Southampton success. Hampton Bays is surrounded by some of the best waterfront property in the country, and refuses to let projects progress.
The problem is the CCHB is trying to do the right thing while the ignorant big mouths think Hampton Bays is just fine.
It has a school district that lets kids graduate with a 7th grade reading level. It has a down town that looks like a third world country. ...more
By chief1 (2800), southampton on May 24, 15 2:42 PM
Plain and simple I agree with the above enough already
By bigblue84 (89), Hampton Bays on May 24, 15 3:00 PM
I grew up in HB and being a kid there in the 70's was terrific! Boats and fishing, surfing threes before it was "fixed", just a great small town vibe. The biggest issue was share houses in the summer and the yearly Guido invasion. No ostentatious displays of wealth, just a working class community with a summer tourist season that ended on Labor Day , scallop season opened the following Monday, truly idyllic times. What the hell has happened to my home town? It has been invaded and successfully ...more
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on May 24, 15 3:28 PM
1 member liked this comment
If you think the price of a house is that simple, so is something else...

11,913.3 Billions of Dollars
Weekly, Ending Monday, Seasonally Adjusted, M2
Updated: 2015-05-21 3:46 PM CDT

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on May 25, 15 6:59 PM
The town just sits back and doesn't provide code enforcement with the resources it needs. Take back HB! Keep it going Mr Dunn and the CCHB your hard work will pay off
By GoldenBoy (351), EastEnd on May 24, 15 4:10 PM
3 members liked this comment
What do you mean by Guido invasion bigfresh??
By reg rep (408), Southampton on May 24, 15 4:25 PM
If you don't know wht big fresh means by guido invasion, you never spent any time in Hampton bays in the 90's
By bubby (236), southampton on May 24, 15 4:55 PM
The CCHB is doing the same thing that the Hampton Bays Civic Association did back in the early 80's when the Hampton Bays Community was over run with group rentals. As a police officer working code enforcement, Steven Dodge every Sunday morning would report to the SHT Police Chief with his list of houses with multiple cars and loud music. And Chief Teller had several officers go out and list the license plates and issue appearance tickets. But since most of the bars have been closed, or bought ...more
By trurepublician (53), hampton bays on May 24, 15 11:14 PM
1 member liked this comment
Mid 70's and later saw a seasonal influx of Guidos from BBQ ( Bronx Brooklyn and Queens) Complete with gold chains and driving a Monte SS, yo how youse doin? Where's Hamptons? You know wit da bars an da broads and da beach and s**#? A truly incredible spectacle. But they left after Labor Day, I would gladly take a few months of that instead of having the town turn into a third world outpost!
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on May 25, 15 7:08 AM
In order to upgrade a community, one can't move forward by waxing nostalgic for an old nuisance (rowdy group rentals), in response to a new nuisance (overcrowded slum housing).

HB represents the largest voting block in the Town!
Dunn just won a sweeping victory to the School Board--now the community needs to draft him to run for Town Board! I predict a big win in Nov.
By aging hipster (201), Southampton on May 25, 15 7:37 AM
2 members liked this comment
I am appalled at the judgmental comments and character attacks made by Sr. Mary Moore. Dare I say "how unchristian"? I cannot believe the leadership of the Church of St. Rosalie is condoning such behavior and allowing the Centro Corazon de Maria to use their resources. I am embarrassed to be a parishioner. It is time for me to find a new place to donate my "time, talents and treasures".
By G.A.Lombardi (575), Hampton Bays on May 25, 15 8:27 AM
1 member liked this comment
What Sister Mary Beth is saying is that eliminating illegal rentals will not fix the problem. There is still a need for cheap labor in Hampton Bays that will never go away.

In a side note, does anybody find it crazy that the school can give a bunch of random community members the list of all its rentals? What if non-registered child molesters wanted to know that information? Or violent racists?
By Tellyourtale (5), Southampton on May 25, 15 9:52 AM
1 member liked this comment
If you don't like the FOIL process, fight for reform, but don't deny anyone their rights. If I execute my rights, I do not expect to by judged by a member of the religious community. I also don't expect a member of the religious community to condone that breaking the law is an effective method of problem solving. If you live in the real world long enough, you know that that never turns out well.
By G.A.Lombardi (575), Hampton Bays on May 25, 15 10:29 AM
I am unsure how exactly "cheap labor" equates to living in substandard conditions, breaking the law, lying about residency etc, which is all supported by the Church. Baffling.
By bb (922), Hampton Bays on May 28, 15 10:17 AM
1 member liked this comment
Ok so ends the trip down memory lane. To resurrect HB : enforce Towncide to the nth degree, zero tolerance for any infractions, from litter to noise to illegal housing. Enforce residency requirements for the school district. Raze the CPI let them build as of right , no more PDDs. This is from the outside looking in as Ino longer reside in HBbut have family and friends who do
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on May 25, 15 3:00 PM
1 member liked this comment
I would love to see a zero tolerance for code violations. I am tired of returning shopping carts to the Shopping Center that people leave on the sidewalk on Montauk Highway. I would also like to see zero tolerance for people who don't pick up dog feces on the beach. I stepped in a big pile of it last summer.
By G.A.Lombardi (575), Hampton Bays on May 25, 15 3:18 PM
1 member liked this comment
There is a high demand for heroin in Hampton Bays should we stop enforcing drug laws? What laws does Sister Mary Beth want to enforce? How about we enforce the law that makes it illegal to help illegal immigrants? Lets enforce that , and we can take away the churchs non tax status. We are a country of rules which sister Mary Beth thinks she can pick, and choose from. Its easy to make statements when you're not a taxpayer.
By chief1 (2800), southampton on May 25, 15 5:57 PM
3 members liked this comment
to G.A. Lombardi:

Are you insane? Did your actually read the rest of the article explicating Sr. Mary Moore's observation?

If may have been impolitic for the sister to have mentioned that Hispanics are living in motels that have been converted to apartments. However, given the ethic of the Roman Catholic Church, she certainly didn't mean to give ammunition to the local HamptonBayites who want to expel all the impoverished from their community.

Clearly, her intent was ...more
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on May 25, 15 8:47 PM
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my comment(s). I actually respect all that you have to say, whether or not I agree with it.
By G.A.Lombardi (575), Hampton Bays on May 26, 15 5:52 AM
Agreed HH , see the article above re: Michael Dunn!
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on May 26, 15 5:51 AM
It looks like you made this comment in reference to the highhatsize comments directed at me. Wow you guys are harsh. Based on the number of comments you both have, you have been playing in this sandbox for a long time. Good for you for exercising your right to free speech. I plan on doing the same.
By G.A.Lombardi (575), Hampton Bays on May 26, 15 6:47 AM
1 member liked this comment
Take a trip as you call it UP ISLAND and drive through Huntington Station and other small towns on the island. Some look like a third world, from the shops closing to 20 people living in a two room shack with garbage thrown throughout the area . No one cares. Michael Dunn and the Concerned Citizens care about Hampton Bays. Let them tear down the CPI for condos and leave Tiderunners area for a restaurant.
By longislander40 (37), hampton bays on Jun 6, 15 11:41 PM
2 members liked this comment